Three-and-out: Lions’ rookies come out hot, plus a key cultural change fueling team’s rise

Detroit News

Kansas City, Mo. — Here are three observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 21-20 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Rookie rampage

All offseason, we’ve been telling you about the ability of this rookie class to have an instant impact, and without the performance of that talented group of first-year players, I’m not sure the Lions emerge victorious.

Obviously, the play of the night from the rookies belongs to defensive back Brian Branch, who had such an impressive training camp that he pushed veteran safety and 2022 captain Tracy Walker to a reserve role. A significant component in that decision was Branch’s ability to capitalize on playmaking opportunities. The Lions were immediately rewarded for that component of the evaluation when he corralled an impressive interception off a deflection and had the wherewithal to return it 50 yards for a touchdown.

Branch almost had another pick in the game, when he found himself in position on a deep shot, but the ball ended up just out of reach, glancing off his fingertips. There were also some communication issues, which plagued not just him, but much of Detroit’s back seven, as they build chemistry. I bring that up to tell you things only stand to improve from this point.

Sticking with the defense, linebacker Jack Campbell came off the bench, as was expected, but still ended up playing nearly 40% of the team’s defensive snaps, registering a pair of solo tackles and a diving pass breakup. On that play, he showed the ability to read the quarterback’s eyes and make an adjustment in zone coverage. It was a good start for the Iowa product, and his role only figures to grow.

On offense, the Lions got quality contributions from both running back Jahmyr Gibbs and tight end Sam LaPorta.

Gibbs played the lighter side of a rotation with bell cow David Montgomery, but the speedy standout from Alabama made an impact in his 19 snaps, racking up 60 yards from scrimmage on seven carries and two receptions. Not only did he put his trademark speed and burst on display, but he flashed some nastiness by lowering a shoulder on two of his perimeter plays, just in case you didn’t know he had that in his bag.

As for LaPorta, he had an efficient day as a pass-catcher, hauling in all five of his targets for 39 yards. In our season preview, we hinted his rookie production might not be far off what T.J. Hockenson provided the Lions, on average, and this would put LaPorta on that kind of pace. And you can be sure there are some bigger gains to come given the way he moves in the open field.

But more than his receiving ability, LaPorta’s blocking stood out. Rookie tight ends often look overwhelmed in that area, but his effort, positioning and execution were on point for a debut, including a key block of star linebacker Nick Bolton on Montgomery’s go-ahead touchdown.

It was an outstanding introduction for the group, giving further optimism to what the Lions are building through the draft under general manager Brad Holmes.

The true culture change

It wouldn’t be out of place to suggest the defining trait of the Lions during their decades of ineptitude has been their inability to overcome self-inflicted (or officiating) mistakes. That lack of mental fortitude has shown up consistently over the years, which has prohibited the team from achieving high levels, or even moderate success.

But under coach Dan Campbell, that script is well on its way to being flipped. In this one, the first half couldn’t have ended much more poorly than it did for the Lions. After driving into the red zone, there was the botched snap that hit motioning tight end Brock Wright, followed by Marvin Jones losing the first fumble of his career.

Then, on defense, the Lions allowed a third-and-17 conversion, and let the play beat them twice, when the Chiefs ran a quick snap and got 26 more yards against the rattled secondary. One play later, they’re in the end zone, capping off a 14-point swing before halftime, knowing they’d get the ball to start the third quarter.

That’s where the wheels would have come off for the Lions of old, but not this bunch. They overcame that sequence, two coverage communication snafus that resulted in Chiefs touchdowns and some other physical and mental errors, to hang tough in the most challenging road environment imaginable.

You hear this saying all the time: Football is 90% mental. That cliché is hyperbole, but the fact of the matter is confidence goes a long way to will you out of a rut. This team has that ability, and it comes from the top down, cultivated by in-game decisions. How many coaches fake a punt at their own 17-yard line? How many go for it on fourth down at midfield, risking giving the NFL’s best offense excellent field position with two minutes to go?

Campbell puts full faith in the roster and they’re rewarding him for it.

Critical adjustments

Aidan Hutchinson didn’t stuff the stat sheet, in a traditional sense, finishing the night with four tackles and zero sacks, but he had an understated impact with his ability to pressure the pocket, rushing or moving quarterback Patrick Mahomes off his spot seven times. Against lesser QBs, some of those pressures will inevitably turn into coveted sacks.

What really impressed from Hutchinson’s performance was a second-half adjustment. In the early going, he was trying to do too much and it was hurting the team. The best example came when he attempted an inside spin move, an effective tool in his arsenal, but one that took him out of his rush lane against one of the NFL’s best running quarterbacks. Mahomes immediately recognized the vacated space, scrambling for 16 yards — a key play on an early touchdown drive.

I couldn’t help but think of Ndamukong Suh, another former No. 2 pick for the Lions, who had to learn to harness his ability early in his career, not allowing opposing offenses to use his aggression against him. Clearly, there was a point of emphasis made to Detroit’s edge rushers at the half about not losing contain on Mahomes. And you could see this hitting home with Hutchinson, who would slam on the brakes mid-snap to ensure he wasn’t overrunning the pocket in the final two quarters.

It was a small thing that won’t show up on the box score, but Hutchinson’s discipline in the second half was a key factor in the Chiefs’ second-half struggles on offense.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter/X: @Justin_Rogers

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